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In 1990 Albania ended 44 years of xenophobic communist rule and established a multiparty democracy. The transition has proven difficult as corrupt governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated infrastructure, widespread gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents. International observers judged local elections in 2000 to be acceptable and a step toward democratic development, but serious deficiencies remain to be corrected before the 2001 parliamentary elections.

Update No: 064 - (27/08/02)

The Albanians are doing rather well, coming from a position of having been the poorest country in Europe. This dubious distinction would now be held by the Moldovans.

Economic recovery
The turning point was 1999 when the Kosovo War broke out. Albania overnight became the leading US ally in the region, a boon condition. For the aid and personnel assistance began to flow in serious amounts, not just from NATO states but also NGO's, who now collectively represent a substantial input in numerous ways.
Growth of GDP has been in the 7-8% per annum range since then, with remarkably low inflation. Not surprisingly the Socialist party romped home to a re-election last year, having come to power in 1997. The main figure in the socialist camp is Fatos Nano, an ex-premier three times over who has assumed the premiership again in August, taking over the job from Pandeli Majko of his own party.

Political shenanigans 
It is generally assumed that Nano has done a deal with Sali Berisha, the leader of the conservative opposition and another ex-premier. This probably helped a bipartisan election of Alfred Moisim, a 74-year-old defence expert, to the presidency, a post Berisha probably covets for himself eventually. 
Nano, as the younger figure, can go along with that for he wants the substance, not the shadow. The premiership confers that.

The pluses and minuses of privatisation 
The one undoubted drawback to the Westernisation of Albania is that it is being accompanied by a galloping descent into corruption and gangsterism, twin evils of the transition from communism to capitalism although long present in Albania. Italy is viewed by many Albanians as the natural 'protector and guardian' and there are centuries-old communities of ethnic Albanians, many the decedents of mercenary troops of the former Bourbon kings, just across the Adriatic Sea in southern Italy. The Italian-Albanian mafia are a by-product of this presence and unfortunately, so far it has been this mafia who have been offering their own type of 'protection,' for of course protection money.
The situation in Albania, nevertheless, warrants a conclusion on a positive note. It is incontestably doing much better economically than ever before. There are goods in the shops. The Western world is no longer forbidden territory. The country is coming in from the cold, assisting the US in its anti-terrorism campaign and getting closer to the Europeans, EU membership may be a distant goal, but, like NATO membership, is no longer an absurd aspiration. 

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President takes office with intensive agenda for change 

Twenty-one cannon shots marked the July 24th swearing-in ceremony of Albania's new president, 73-year-old Alfred Moisiu. Moisiu, whose election was hailed as a reversal of Albania's 12 years of political stalemate, has vowed to fight crime and corruption and has set the country's sights on Western integration. 
Pledging to serve as "president of all Albanians," 73-year-old Alfred Moisiu, a former defense minister and retired army general, took office yesterday, offering an intensive agenda for political and social change. "I will promote all initiatives - public or civic, political or parliamentary, juridical or institutional or governmental - that ensure better implementation of the Constitution of the Republic of Albania; maximum respect for the right to vote and free will of all Albanian citizens; and the strengthening of the constitutional, economic, and political order in the irreconcilable struggle with criminality and corruption of all hues: all kinds of trafficking, international terrorism, and the illegitimate financial oligarchy," Moisiu said, RFE/RL has reported.
"For me, Albania comes first," the new president added, declaring the motto of his five-year term to be: "West, Peace, Justice, and Development." 
Moisiu was elected Albania's new president by an overwhelming majority vote of consensus between ruling and opposition parties. Just a few days later, Moisiu had already become active in political life, suggesting that Socialist majority leader, Fatos Nano, remove from the new government all the officials implicated by Nano himself in corruption cases earlier this year. Nano has been tasked with creating the new cabinet, which is scheduled to be passed before parliamentary vacations begin on 3rd August.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Moisiu said he would make compliance with anticorruption measures a top priority. Such comments have led analysts to speculate that dramatic shifts may be imminent in many state institutions. But Moisiu said his presidency will be one of gradual changes rather than instant overhauls. "I cannot start my duties aiming [only] for changes. My goal is to fight corruption and crime, and whoever supports this battle will, for sure, continue to carry on his duties. Whoever will try to slow its pace or not support it, of course, has to set the office free," Moisiu said.
Moisiu is known for his strong family ties and appreciation for Albanian culture and traditions. But he also speaks fluent Russian, having studied military engineering in the Soviet Union, and began studying English in earnest a decade ago as part of his efforts to shift Albania's sights toward the West. Since 1994, he has pushed for Albania's integration into NATO as president of the Albanian North Atlantic Association, something he says is still a distant prospect despite certain gains in recent years. "Although, on the one hand, there has been progress and positive steps taken in the military field, the lack of political stability has, on the other hand, definitely hindered Albania's integration. By achieving a political consensus, I believe, the main political forces will create the climate necessary for the country to move in the direction requested by the European Union and NATO," Moisiu said. 
The new president, who laughingly describes himself as "too honest," says the social stability of Albanians has been devastated by years of government corruption and crippling poverty. Surveys have found that hundreds of families throughout the country now make their living through drug cultivation, trafficking, and black-market businesses. 
It is a problem that Moisiu calls "serious," but not "unbeatable." He says, "As president of the republic, I will urge the Prosecutor-General's Office to show no mercy in confronting these phenomena."

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Development goals for next 15 years set with UN

A recent survey shows that Albania, while making certain strides, is still firmly in the grip of poverty and corruption. 
Official unemployment in the country is 14.4 per cent and is likely to be even higher in the future. One out of every three Albanians lives in abject poverty, with half of this group earning less than a dollar a day, RFE/RL has reported. 
Over half the population live in rural areas and are not allowed to register as unemployed, even if they move to urban locations and fail to find work there. Nearly a third of Albanian families live in poor-quality housing. One out of every three children in Albania suffers from malnutrition. The illiteracy rate stands at 12 per cent. 
The survey, under the guidance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was conducted by the Albanian Centre of Economic Studies. Zef Preci, the centre's director, says such statistics are the result of the emergence of new economic and social classes in post-communist Albania: "I don't think it's any secret that a sort of financial oligarchy has been created in Albania, meaning that a small number of people have legally or illegally concentrated enormous wealth. This is due not to their skills, but to the law vacuum, their connections abroad, or political support. The middle class is now going through a phase of introduction, of distinguishing itself, and it does not have the dominance that it enjoys in countries with a developed market economy. I think this is one of the reasons why certain phenomena, like massive unemployment, are evident, and the progress of poverty reduction is so slow. It's clear that creating stability and much-desired economic growth is largely dependent on the development of the middle class." 
Migration estimates suggest that nearly 15 per cent of the Albanian population lives abroad. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, such Albanian emigrants send home some US$600m a year, a figure that amounts to 20 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. 
The problem of poverty is exacerbated by poor governance and widespread corruption. A World Bank survey describes Albania as providing a "startling picture of systemic corruption that hurts public welfare, taxes private-sector activity, and is deeply institutionalised." 
A recent corruption survey concluded that out of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, and the former federation of Yugoslavia, it is residents of Albania who are subjected to the greatest pressure from public officials to provide bribes and other forms of illegal compensation. Moreover, the survey adds, the problem is so deeply ingrained that most Albanians have come to look at corruption as an effective means of solving private problems. 
Kalman Mizsei heads the UNDP's Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States bureau. He says that compared to other countries in his target region, Albania's situation is not so dire: "Nobody says that you have a perfect democracy, but you do have a democracy. Nobody says that you have a perfect market economy, but you do have the beginnings of a market economy. In Central Asia we have a grave deficit of pluralistic democratic societies, and in that light, in that comparison, it's even more striking how much better many countries in the Balkans, including Albania, perform these days." 
Mizsei says despite the gloomy statistics that currently make up Albania's economic profile, there is cause for optimism in the Balkans overall: "It seems to me that the Balkans, after having had a very painful and costly decade of national conflicts, is now entering a period which will be characterized by an increasing alignment with the European Union, and also by an increasing internal cooperation of the Balkan nations. And I do hope that within Europe, in this decade, the Balkans will be the most dynamic region." 
Mizsei's ambitions for Albania are slightly more modest. Laid out in a document called the Albanian Response to the Millennium Development Goals, the UNDP and the Albanian government propose concrete development aims to be achieved over the next 15 years. 
First among the proposals is to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day, as well as those suffering from hunger. The plan also aims to guarantee at least primary education for all Albanians and promote gender equality. Infant and maternal mortality rates have also been targeted as areas of concern, as has the spread of HIV/AIDS and the rise in human trafficking. 
Other Millennium Development Goals include pressing the government to acknowledge and fight the spread of organized crime in the country. The systematic discrimination against minority groups like Roma is also targeted for improvement, as is the fight against drugs. Albania currently has no national strategy for stemming drug trafficking and drug use, despite indications that cannabis cultivation has become a standard form of livelihood in many rural areas.

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Albanians keep settling in environmental disaster area

Five years ago, Flutorime Jani and her extended family settled on the grounds of an abandoned chemical plant. Fleeing the barren, lawless mountains, they found a spot a few kilometres from this city, Albania's main port. At first they thought they were lucky, Marlise Simons wrote in The New York Times.
"The land was free," Jani said.
Bricks and tiles were also free. The men stripped them from the old factory buildings and created shacks. The word spread, and today the plant is a shantytown with more than 3,000 inhabitants.
Today, it is also a place where experts say people are being collectively poisoned. Until 1990, this state factory made a range of hazardous chemicals, including chromium-6, used in leather tanning, and lindane, a pesticide so dangerous that many countries ban it.
Jani is among those who complain of nausea and stomach aches. "The pains come often, like the clouds," she said, raising a hand helplessly to the heavens.
Last year, the United Nations Environment Program, in its first assessment of Albania's environment, designated this site of the former Porto Romano chemical plant an environmental disaster area that posed "grave risks to human health, groundwater and the marine habitat." The report called for closing the area, removing the settlers, and monitoring the health of 10,000 people living on the fringes of the plant.
The government's only action was to build a wall blocking the access road. Angry residents tore it down, and new settlers keep coming.
"We have no money to fence it off," said Miri Hoti, the mayor of Durres. He implied that the foreign experts were overreacting. "These people come here voluntarily, though it's banned," the mayor said. "There is no other housing."
About 400 tons of chemicals - chromium salt, methanol, lindane, methylamine - are still stored on the 300-hectare, or 750-acre, site, leaking from corroded steel barrels and spilling from torn bags, blown about by the wind. The acrid sting of lindane fills the air.
Some residents keep vegetable patches. Cows and goats rummage among the rusting metal vats. Children play on the contaminated grounds and roll in the noxious dust. New homes are going up along the plant's open dump site, which holds 20,000 tons of hazardous waste.
The unfolding crisis here is the result of the anarchy that began a decade ago with the end of the harsh Communist regime. It was compounded when vast pyramid investment schemes collapsed in 1997, ruining countless Albanians.

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